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‘Friend of the Family’: Opening Moments Mark Compelling Change for True Crime Stories

Starting the Peacock series off with the real Jan Broberg puts a face to a genre that often feels impersonal and exploitative. 

A FRIEND OF THE FAMILY -- “Horseback Riding in American Falls” Episode 101 -- Pictured: (l-r) Jake Lacy as Robert "B" Berchtold, Hendrix Yancey as Young Jan Broberg (Photo by: Erika Doss/Peacock)

“A Friend of the Family”

Erika Doss/Peacock

The premiere episode of Peacock’s limited series “A Friend of the Family” starts differently than other true crime genre series. Instead of a disclaimer emphasizing how these are based on true events, it starts on a soundstage, with the real Jan Broberg Felt sitting in a director’s chair. She tells the audience that the events in the series may sound shocking and preposterous but they’re true and they happened to her.

It’s not something commonly seen on television today, especially in the era of peak true crime television with creatives often adapting magazine articles and documentaries rather than going to victims directly for the rights to their story. It’s debatable how much of this is to get around paying for life rights and/or to give directors and screenwriters an out if they change real events too much. And it’s impossible not to think of how commodified the true crime genre is hearing the real Broberg Felt sensitively discuss that this is her story and that she hopes it will educate others.

And it is that concept of educating, long the presumed intent of true crime stories though not often felt, that Broberg Felt has brought up since the project started. In a recent appearance in New York to promote the series, Broberg Felt said, “I hope they [audiences] feel like they can relate because the point in telling our story for the last 32 years is because we wanted people to know this happens to every day, regular people.”

Broberg Felt’s introduction also brings an air of legitimacy, if not authenticity, to the series. Where the true crime genre most often is criticized for its sexualizing of serial killers and fetishizing heinous acts, Broberg Felt being the first face audiences see forces them to remember, “Hey, this is about a real person.” Her participation implies this will be respectful and far from prurient, which creator Nick Antosca and star Jake Lacy both said was integral to their participation.

A FRIEND OF THE FAMILY -- A Friend of the Family Premiere Event on September 28, 2022, at The Metrograph in New York City -- Pictured: (l-r) Nick Antosca, Showrunner, Executive Producer, Writer; Jan Broberg, Producer; Jake Lacy -- (Photo by: Dave Kotinsky/Peacock)

Jan Broberg Felt

Dave Kotinsky/Peacock

For Lacy, who talked to IndieWire via Zoom, the true crime genre too often falls into a binary of having to be all true or all crime, which often leaves the focus on the perpetrator and rationalizing their personal choices that led them to do something terrible. “So much of true crime narrative storytelling is built around the why, and we track the killer, or the predator? Or the rapist? As opposed to saying, ‘How did this happen? How did we wind up in a place where this individual took advantage of this family?” he said.

And considering the wild roads the story takes, much of which was laid out in the 2017 documentary film “Abducted in Plain Sight,” having the real person lend credence to the story should help soothe audiences who say, “This can’t possibly be true.” To see actors perform a scene where a pedophile tells a small child that aliens want her to save a dying planet and that requires her to have sex with a grown man, an audience can easily say, “Who would believe this?” But just having the real Jan sit there and say, “I believed it,” dispels many of the typical questions that arise when watching a documentary.

“A Friend of the Family” holds the basic tenets of a true crime story in that it is a true crime tale with liberties taken (which are mentioned in a disclaimer accompanying the end of every episode). But starting the series off with the real Jan Broberg puts a face to a genre that often feels impersonal and, at times, exploitative.

“A Friend of the Family” streams on Peacock starting October 6.

Additional reporting by Samantha Bergeson

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